Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Malay Asian Food, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “It’s a precious opportunity to participate in the Very Veggie Movement.”
What the shop sells is tofu products, but what’s perhaps most immediately felt upon entering the venue is that everything inside is made from the heart. With real ingredients and gratifying flavors, the vegetarian items deliver a certain elegance to one’s meal. During the early mornings in Sogo Tofu’s kitchen, you’ll find bright yellow organic soybeans boiling away in a pot, and fine, fresh tofu skins gently hanging to dry on a rack. For 18 years, they’ve been keeping it simple and fresh, the scent of soybeans introducing their tale in California’s Silicon Valley.
Sogo Tofu was established in 2003, and has experienced many milestones over its 18 years of wholehearted commitment to good food. Amidst the highly competitive dining choices in Silicon Valley, it attracts those who also enjoy Sogo Tofu’s delicious approach to vegetarian and vegan foods — and those who wish to try something a little different.
For the Love of Tofu
“Our family members love tofu, bean curd, tofu skin, soy milk, and many other soy products,” said shop owner Lihua Ho. Their family had immigrated from Taiwan to the United States many years ago, and decided to put their passion for fresh, healthy, and delicious food into action: “In 2003, when the Yongkang supermarket in the same shopping plaza was about to close, we took over the kitchen equipment and staff. My eldest sister, her husband, and I decided to open this shop to sell the soybean products we love.”
The shop they rented, however, is located at the junction of Cupertino, San Jose, and Saratoga — three major cities in the populated San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California that serve as a global center for technological innovation. The rent, therefore, accounts for the majority of the operating cost. For the most part, the soybean products alone can’t make ends meet, so the sale of additional and diversified vegetarian products is also necessary to boost revenue.
When asked whether she was concerned about the reception of Chinese-style vegetarian foods in the Western market during the early days of entrepreneurship, Lihua Ho offered a humble smile, saying, “There weren’t any vegetarian shops in this area at the time, so I’m glad to say that our shop became a hit.” As it turned out, consumers in Silicon Valley enjoyed the organic tofu and fresh soy products very much, so unexpectedly, many residents in and around the area quickly became regulars.
The shop is humble and unimposing, offering only take-out as there are no tables for dining-in. Upon entry through the double glass doors, one will see a large refrigerator on the right-hand side full of the store’s signature tofu products and fresh soy milk. There are as many as five or six different types of tofu products, each made with fresh ingredients. The organic soybeans are produced by a local farm in California that they’ve been collaborating with for a long time. On a nearby shelf is a variety of boxed side dishes with stewed vegetables and some sweets. When customers pick up a pack of tofu, they frequently add a few boxes of these side dishes to their shopping bag as well. The checkout counter is close to the door, and a variety of hot foods made that day are available on the table behind the clear plexiglass.
Many come by to pick up their lunch during breaks and can enjoy a good meal right away. Behind the counter stands a rack full of freshly baked and steamed buns in a variety of flavors. If the checkout speed slows down, it’s most likely due to the challenge of deciding which crispy, golden treat to take home.
The freezer on the left side of the entrance has a variety of frozen foods ready for customers to take home and prepare for themselves. Although a hot meal can take care of one’s immediate needs, guests also enjoy the convenience of bringing their favorite foods home to cook at any time for their family. The pre-cooked products are ready to eat after it’s thawed or heated.
There’s no place without a plan in the shop; the space is full of all kinds of vegetarian dry goods, seasonings, and snacks. It complements the store’s English name, as Sogo Department Store in Taiwan is a large-scale boutique that emerged in Taipei in the 1980s.
When Lihua Ho was asked about the most popular item in the store, she paused for a while and said, “We haven’t taken it into account because every item is very popular.”
Lihua Ho said that since Sogo Tofu’s establishment 18 years ago, she seldom promoted the products in the store. It’s about making a tasteful vegetarian choice that accommodates everyone, she told Tzu Chi volunteers. Lihua Ho also shared her gratitude for all the love she has felt over the years. A love for tofu, a love for the customers, and a love for the employees. It’s a genuine appreciation for the things and people who have enriched her time at the shop.
Customer Relationship Throughout The Years
Shop owner Lihua Ho has established great relationships with their guests, a greeting and a welcoming smile always ready. “The sincere relationship from customers is the biggest reason why we continue to make the store great.”
Since its opening, the small store has always seen a steady current of customers coming and going. On weekends and family shopping days, it was even more crowded. Seemingly the moment the shelves were replenished, the items were quickly swept away again.
When asked how so many people knew about the store, Lihua Ho responded with gratitude: “Customers who like our food choices will help us promote and refer.”
Lihua Ho shared that she has become friends with many customers, chatting with guests like good neighbors. And as for food products that need attention for improvement, customers will give their polite feedback privately. “I made many friends in this shop. I really think they are all very good customers.”
Customers often give Lihua Ho their feedback and kind support, saying things like, “It’s great that you opened this store. You are very kind. It’s nice to see you when I come here.” Lihua Ho was deeply moved, and reminded herself to never miss a chance to extend her compliments and create joy as well.
Lihua Ho said that there are more young adults who like vegetarian food than one might think. When the store first opened, many young people came in, and some became regular customers. After many years, they got married, started a family, and brought their children to the store. The desire for vegetarian food is not necessarily dependent upon age, but perhaps whenever one explores their preferences.
A Stable Establishment
In order to provide a variety of hot meal choices each day, the staff works hard from morning until night to ensure everything runs smoothly. Therefore, Lihua Ho repeatedly shared her heartfelt gratitude for all of her dedicated staff and partners.
When the shop first opened, the shareholders of the store each contributed their funds, time, and energy, and everyone worked in the shop daily. Over ten years had passed, however, and as they aged, the energy to withstand the long hours of activity had begun to ebb. In the past few years, Lihua Ho began providing her personal touch at the shop solely during the weekend peak hours, the other duties having shifted to Steven Chung and Lihua’s sister, Aby Ho. The operation of the shop requires many details to be perfectly in place, and the two utilize their experience and endurance to manage everything in an orderly fashion.
Sogo Tofu opens its doors at 8 AM every morning, but the kitchen staff starts work as early as 5 AM. They soak the soybeans overnight and begin to process the beans for the fresh tofu and tofu skin that day. There’s also soy milk and stir-fried entrees with various seasonal choices.
The team at Sogo Tofu does not exceed ten staff members, and good teamwork is the key to successful daily operation. The partners know the great importance of maintaining a supportive relationship with each other, so the staff turnover rate is very low, and the experienced team upholds reliability in both their food’s excellent quality and taste.
The Impact Of The Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a major blow to small businesses all across the nation, and Sogo Tofu has also felt those effects. The decrease in the number of customers and the increase in production costs have been the biggest challenges for them. Rent is a fixed monthly cost that could not be avoided despite the lack of customers, however. Many of the traditional food items offered at Sogo Tofu are imported from Taiwan to maintain the quality and taste, but during the pandemic, the price of shipping has increased as well. “In 2020, we could barely balance the books. This is the first time that shareholders are faced with no profits.”
Even with these challenges, the quality of the foods offered at Sogo Tofu must be upheld. And yet, the preservative-free foods cannot be sold the following day. “But every time I saw the staff throw them away, I felt so heartbroken. I couldn’t bear to look at it again,” said Lihua Ho. When Lihua Ho saw how many people had been impacted by the pandemic, she sent the fresh food that hadn’t been sold that day to religious groups in the community, hoping to help people who were in need.
The Next Generation Tells The Story
Many Tzu Chi volunteers in the community are also regulars at Sogo Tofu. After forming a wonderful friendship with volunteers, they even participated in the community’s weekly sign language practice for Dharma activities. The chefs from the shop have also participated in the year-end blessing ceremony. Therefore, when Tzu Chi volunteers invited Sogo Tofu to join the Very Veggie Movement in response to the pandemic, Lihua Ho gladly accepted, hoping to boost the good health of communities as well as the wider availability of vegan and vegetarian alternatives for more people. California’s Silicon Valley is full of youth, vitality, and the capacity for transformation, and as more young adults begin to explore environmentally friendly and healthy options, Lihua Ho is eager to hear more from the next generation.
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!